should we be happy or unhappy that adjuncts teach well?

There’s a recent study by researchers at Northwestern showing that part time instructors do better than tenured full timers. A few clips from an Inside Higher Ed piece addressing the issue:

A major new study has found that new students at Northwestern University learn more when their instructors are adjuncts than when they are tenure-track professors.

The study — released this morning by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) — found that the gains are greatest for the students with the weakest academic preparation. And the study found that the gains extended across a wide range of disciplines. The authors of the study suggest that by looking at measures of student learning, and not just course or program completion, their work may provide a significant advance in understanding the impact of non-tenure-track instructors.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this might be true. Adjuncts are teaching specialists. While tenure track faculty do many things. What is interesting is the policy implication: maybe the increase in adjuncting is good from a student perspective. You get many more chances to work with someone who only does teaching. The down side is that providing this service is cheap and thus creates a downward pressure on wages. And considering the extremely high cost of getting into the academic labor forces, that’s a raw deal.
Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2013 at 12:05 am

25 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I worry about the long-term implications. Chuck Tilly taught at the University of Delaware for several years. If he was burdened to death with a massive teaching load, would he have gotten all of that wonderful work done? TT positions are still necessary to support the larger infrastructure of a faculty career.



    September 11, 2013 at 12:30 am

  2. I’m for a model where adjunct positions are replaced by a plethora of clinical professor-ish positions, which hire from a different three-letter credential class than the PhD, thereby promoting them above the stupid adjunct (read: employable-nowhere-else career failure). We need to legitimate the conscientious teaching of post-secondary education and stop forcing people who mostly despise teaching to do it (or alternatively giving deadwood professors the option of coasting on teaching intro courses). Research professors who love teaching and are exceptional at it, the Charles Feinsteins of the world, could still elect to teach.

    These educators would teach at least the first 60 credit hours of a student’s education (likely 3rd and 4th year topics courses as well), and spend disproportionate time in their graduate studies reviewing literature, synthesizing, learning history of thought, and cross-disciplinary history, as to be able to provide a real liberal arts education, rather than the silo’d tragedy that exists now. They would be qualified and able to interpret frontier research as it appears in departments and journals, but focus on translation and synthesis. Them interacting with primary researchers would have the added bonus of keeping primary research grounded and relevant.

    Of course I’m also for the abolition of tenure for both primary researchers and pedagogy-focused professors, where both compete for money through, respectively, impact factors for patron dollars, and student evaluations and exams for student tuitions. But that’s maybe a different conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 2:08 am

  3. Should have put scare quotes around “stupid adjunct.” My beef is with the institutional distinction and label, not adjuncts. Most of the best teachers I’ve had have been adjuncts, ABDs at community colleges, and so forth.


    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 2:09 am

  4. Graham, something like what you are suggesting (if I am understanding your position correctly) has sort of already been tried:



    September 11, 2013 at 2:20 am

  5. Yeah, that’s the degree Morris Klein was arguing for in Why the Professor Can’t Teach, a book from ’77 which blew my hair back recently. I plagiarized most of what I suggested from Kline, but didn’t want to push the book again to avert looking like a fanboy because I already brought it up twice on orgtheory.

    I know this is an old issue with a lot of institutional inertia behind it and tired and emotional internal-academic politics. But not a hell of a lot has changed since these issues really came to bear in the mid 20th century. In contrast to my position on a lot of social institutions (that they’re good n’ progressive n’ welfare enhancing and should be left alone), I really take a very traditionally sociological position on the academy. It’s an institution formed mostly between the 13th and 19th centuries, with most of its 20th century changes resulting as a poorly planned accident of historical trajectory, incompatible incentives, and ignorance of tradeoffs — and could use serious improvement.


    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 2:41 am

  6. As one of your Northwestern readers: I haven’t read the study yet, but it’s worth noting that (to my understanding) most non-tenure track teaching at Northwestern is not done by “adjuncts” but by what we call Continuing Lecturer Faculty, who are on multi-year renewable contracts for which the pay is less than tenure-line but substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at Northwestern, which is in turn substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at other places in the area that have used our students as adjuncts. Also, at least in sociology and neighboring disciplines, CLF are expected to teach 6 courses a year, but we are on quarters, which means that the actual number of hours a CLF spends standing in front of a classroom is roughly the same the standard load for a tenure-line faculty member teaching 4 courses at, say, Wisconsin.

    In short, if you are not at a similarly well-heeled place, there’s good reason to suppose our non-tenure track faculty are better teachers than your non-tenure track faculty, whereas I’m not sure the same is true for tenure-track and if it is I wouldn’t expect the difference to be as large.



    September 11, 2013 at 3:13 am

  7. […] Research has been making the rounds. The study, discussed at The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed, Orgtheory, and Tenured Radical, among others, finds that students learn more in classes taught by adjuncts […]


  8. While I don’t doubt that many adjuncts, Doctors of Arts, and continuing lecturers are fine teachers, I do doubt that a model where instructors are not expected to do research can sustain cutting edge education over the course of a career. Quite simply, research is where the teacher can best keep up with developments in the field. Without that, the teacher is merely a conduit for what was taught to them in their graduate seminars or information written in textbooks which may or may not be up to date. Being at a SLAC, I see this first hand with the old guard faculty who keep telling me of the new things they just learned that happened to be published in 1985.



    September 11, 2013 at 5:34 am

  9. This has all the hallmarks of a study that’s going to be generalized way, way beyond what the data can sustain, probably because it presses the right political buttons. Jeremy noted the issue with who is doing the teaching. It’s also relevant that the only students in the study were first term freshman in intro classes.

    I know it’s a time-honored tradition in some parts of the social sciences to study first-term freshman and claim general laws about social behavior from them. Still, it seems entirely plausible that students who are fresh out of high school might benefit more from a professional lecturer, but the effect would (a) disappear after students figure out how college works and (b) be reversed for students in advanced classes, who would learn more from someone who does research in the field.



    September 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

  10. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Interesting debate about adjunct teaching quality being superior to that of tenure-line faculty …



    September 11, 2013 at 11:34 am

  11. krippendorf is right; generalized to frankensteinian levels!Worse than that, however, is considering what this study might look like in reverse; just imagine if we discovered, at an excellent school no less, that tenure-track faculty, on average, were more productive researchers than part-time or fixed-term faculty. If adjuncts are primarily evaluated according to how students respond to their lessons and how much the student can report learning … I’d imagine that they would be selected and discarded according to this important metric. If tenure-line faculty are primarily evaluated according to their research productivity, and how students respond to their lessons and how much the student can report learning is considered secondary … I’d imagine that they would be selected and discarded according to this important metric of research productivity. In fact, even if, at some institutions, teaching requirements are equal to research demands, I would still expect adjuncts to out-perform on teaching because the balancing act of being an outstanding researcher and outstanding teacher is difficult work even when your research and teaching overlap perfectly.



    September 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm

  12. As Jeremy notes, the course load also matters. Regardless of how talented someone is as a teacher, surely they are more effective if they are teaching 2 classes a quarter on the same campus than if they are teaching 5 classes a term at three different schools in a metro area to try to make a living. While interesting, the student-centered approach of the current study limits what we really learn about adjunct teaching. Combining measures of effectiveness with the profiles of the non-TT faculty (what they’re paid, where their degrees are from, why they’re in that line of business, their courseload and class sizes, etc.) would likely go much further in improving the lives of adjunct faculty (and their students).



    September 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  13. krippendorf, jeremy, and Nicholas: From the NBER paper:

    “How generalizable are these results? Because a key part of our identification strategy is to limit our analysis to first-term freshman undergraduates, the evidence that non-tenure track faculty produce better outcomes may not apply to more advanced courses. Further, Northwestern University is one of the most selective and highly-ranked research universities in the world, and its ability to attract first-class non-tenure track faculty may be different from that of most institutions. Its tenure track/tenured faculty members may also have different classroom skills from those at other schools. Finally, Northwestern students come from a rarefied portion of the preparation distribution and are far from reflective of the general student population in the U.S. That said, our findings that the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions.”

    The results don’t wash out in subsequent years as students figure college out — the impact of early-term faculty is in fact measured in terms of students’ course performance in subsequent years. The authors leverage this identification strategy specifically because teaching evaluations may signal mere popularity and actually limit learning.

    cwalken: There is a convex tradeoff between teaching and research — the argument that research professors present a win-win solution to UG teaching has never been shown by anything other than protesting conjecture of threatened tenure faculty. But you’re right: the research rat race incentivizes instructors to keep up with frontier results, and tenured teaching faculty lack these incentives. So — take away their tenure and make staying abreast with current developments a stipulation of contract renewal.


    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm

  14. Aye dios mio, scratch what I said about the results not washing out in later years. The quote supports krippendorf’s point.


    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm

  15. The idea that “adjuncts are teaching specialists” who have no other professional commitments or responsibilities seems rather elitist.


    Big Z

    September 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm

  16. @Jeremy – I think your point (which the authors note in a footnote on page 9, but don’t make a lot of) is incredibly important to understanding what this study tells us. At Michigan, we have a similar situation – unionized lecturers employed on contracts ranging from 1 to 5 years, who are full-time, with benefits, etc. So this study seems likely generalizable to Michigan. But it tells us virtually nothing about the quality of education provided by the typical adjunct at a smaller or poorer school who makes $3000 to teach a class in a term and may be teaching at multiple universities, etc.

    Their final lines of the paper are apt, and again emphasize that this study is *not* about typical adjuncts: “Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.”


    Dan Hirschman

    September 11, 2013 at 4:35 pm

  17. Good points, Dan. I want to point out that I’m not supporting low paid and part time adjuncts, but am in favor of the institutionally legitimized and dignified full-time teaching faculty. One of the best mathematics lecturers in the entire department of mathematics at UIC, a “typical adjunct,” gets paid $30,000+ less than the modal Chicago Public School teacher who is graduating students at a rate south of 50%.

    Whatever their cause, these salary differentials seem to really defy the actual productivity of the two groups.


    Graham Peterson

    September 11, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  18. @Big Z:

    It’s not elitist – it’s simply their contract. Adjunct may *choose* other activities, but they are not evaluated on them. Now, if someone publishes, or does administrative work, that’s good, but it’s not part of the job.



    September 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  19. […] University. The study’s been written up all over the interwebs, from Inside Higher Ed, to OrgTheory. Both IHE and OrgTheory use the term “adjunct” in their post titles – e.g. […]


  20. Not only is the study not generalizable, but the institutional type to which it could most be generalized enrolls a very small segment of all American college and university students. I don’t think community colleges and public comprehensive colleges ought to be drawing very many lessons from the teaching practices of elite research universities.



    September 11, 2013 at 7:23 pm

  21. Ditto to what Mikaila said. I wonder what the study would show if it compared TT vs. adjuncts at a liberal arts college or university that otherwise places greater weight on teaching than research. At those places, you would expect tenure track faculty to be superior because of (1) experience, (2) selective retention, and (3) material incentives to improve your teaching.

    Full disclosure: I am TT at a teaching university and I have worked as an adjunct at an elite liberal arts college, and those are my impressions. To me, the real story here is about what incentives teachers have to devote scarce time/resources into teaching.


    meanwhile at teaching colleges...

    September 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm

  22. Having taught as a lowly adjunct for some 17 years now I am surprised anyone at all is surprised by this result. I have worked alongside excellent researchers who are completely and utterly woeful in front of classes (soon reported back via the student grapevine), some who mumble over complexities far beyond the reach of first year students who imagine they are enlightening the student but in fact are frightening them. Good teachers teach the students to crawl before they walk and walk before they fly. Yet I have worked with other researchers who also love teaching.
    Good teachers love teaching and they can be either a “teacher only” or a “researcher”. Its quite a simple recipe and holds for many careers, because it is surely not the pay or conditions that attracts us to uni teaching. That says little about the teachers and more about management. I don’t think there is a tradeoff between research and teaching except of the individuals own choice and this is also a factor of teaching time and workloads allocated to the tenured staff member (again a management decision). Many adjunct teachers do not research but others do and also support the research of tenured staff.
    I, as an adjunct teacher, apologise to the tenured researchers who suspect I am dragging down your pay. I can assure you it is not me – look up for the real villains!

    I have been rather hoping for quite some time now you could assist to dragging mine up so I can continue to keep doing what I love.



    September 12, 2013 at 12:30 am

  23. As most would now also be aware – tenured higher ed positions are scarce globally and that is why many teach (and work away at study and research in their own time and at their own expense) in the hope that they may one day have a position where they can claim the moral high ground and perhaps get a chance to complain that the army of adjuncts beneath them is depressing their pay.



    September 12, 2013 at 12:51 am

  24. Cheers to what Jeremy and Dan said, but I am just waiting for my dean to blatantly use this study as a rationale for why we don’t need more tenure track positions. I give it two weeks or less. It’s like the linkbait of academic research.



    September 12, 2013 at 1:15 am

  25. […] in the typical sense. Rather, they are classified as Continued Lecturer Faculty, as Jeremy Freese describes in a comment at […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: